Keilani Ricketts is on the hill - no, not a hill. In a circle. She doesn't have the benefit of looking down on her adversaries from high ground or the advantage of gravity to help propel her pitches. She has to rely on herself to achieve great speed, great force. It's only recently that she's learned to harness her gifts, and is poised to become a phenomenon.
It is Oklahoma's 16th game of the season, and she's starting her eighth game as her team's pitcher on the first day of March on a wintry Friday in Norman, Okla. The biting cold at Marita Hynes Field on the University of Oklahoma's campus has caused fans to cover themselves with blankets and tighten the drawstrings on their hoodies as the wind continues to blow the American flag behind the centerfield wall toward home plate. While Oklahoma's third baseman, Shelby Pendley, tucks her arms into her armpits between pitches, Ricketts looks unfazed. Her long white sleeves reveal the only evidence that she even notices the cold.
The Sooners began the season on the road with tournaments in Arizona and California, winning all 15 of their previous games, and today, versus Houston, Ricketts has been tapped by Patty Gasso, Oklahoma's coach, to try and make the No. 1-ranked Sooners 16-0 for just the second time in school history. This is where Ricketts is most comfortable. Right now, she is as untouchable as any person might ever be, might ever have been, in this circle.
Ricketts takes her time, rubbing her left hand, her pitching hand, against the red dirt. She gathers herself at the top of the white outline of the circle and then walks to the rubber. Focused, she stands to the full height of her 6'2 frame, a superbly conditioned athlete. With her brown hair pulled back, she appears far fiercer on the field than off. She glares past the batter to her catcher, Jessica Shults. In her crouch, Shults makes a big target for Ricketts, who is capable of popping Shults' mitt at upward of 73 miles per hour - the equivalent of a major league 103 mile per hour fastball. Shults cannot remember a day when catching a fastball from Ricketts, the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year, doesn't hurt her hand.
Shults relays the sign, and Ricketts twists her hips left, lets her left arm drop softly, slightly, and then slings her arm in a full circle before unleashing the yellow softball in her hand toward home plate. It's the first pitch of the game, and it is low, outside. But it's fast enough to force the batter to choke up a hair. The next few pitches do not miss and Houston goes down meekly.
Five hitters in Oklahoma's lineup - Lauren Chamberlain, Georgia Casey, Shelby Pendley, Ricketts and Shults - are listed on their country's national team or junior national team roster. Ricketts hits fourth, the cleanup hitter in a lineup that is nothing short of dominant and teetering toward greatness. Ricketts is batting .447, slugging .737 and has already stolen two bases in two attempts this season. When she settles into the batter's box for her first at-bat, her stance shows a distinctive knee bend in her back leg, a slugger's crouch.
The bat barrel wiggles as her hands make tight slow circles. She watches Houston pitcher Bailey Watts' first offering, and then fouls the second off the netting behind home plate. But the third pitch she turns on. Ricketts crushes the ball toward the right field wall, and there are only so many steps outfielder Reina Gaber takes before she surrenders to a fact the partisan crowd has already filed away as past history in its mind: That ball is gone.
By the end of the game, Ricketts will have shut out Houston, 6-0, striking out 14 of 27 batters and collecting her eighth win of the season. She pitched the full seven innings, giving up just five hits and going 2-for-2 at the plate with an RBI.
Many in the crowd of 720 fans may one day realize they have watched one of the greatest softball players ever to play the game. In the pitcher's game of fastpitch softball, Ricketts' abilities as a two-way player, as a hitter and a pitcher, are the traits that make her especially unique. It is one of several reasons Team USA has given her the ball in games it must win, a distinction she has yet to fully accept.
She is women's softball's Babe Ruth, if the Babe Ruth who was a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and a star slugger for the New York Yankees was both at once. Like Ruth, Ricketts is more than a player: She can be the face of the sport.
The Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame Complex, the seat of American softball, lies just off Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City. It houses ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and the National Softball Hall of Fame. Free posters featuring retired women's U.S. national team players Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Lisa Fernandez lay outside the museum doors. Just inside, life-sized Finch and Osterman cardboard cutouts greet visitors.
Just five years ago, Finch and Osterman were ubiquitous with American softball and winning, and neither they nor the U.S. women's national team were afraid of the attention, or of using their fame to promote their sport or themselves. A marketing dream, Finch was the poster woman for the sport from the moment she proved dominant in the circle at the University of Arizona until announcing her retirement in July 2010. Osterman is a two-time Olympian and is the only three-time USA Softball Player of the Year in the sport's history. The gift shop is overrun with Finch and Osterman gear. A Jennie Finch headband can be purchased for $9.95 and a Team USA Cat Osterman jersey can be yours for a mere $89.
The 2008 national team, the last to compete in the Olympics before the International Olympic Committee dropped the sport, still reigns supreme. There are no jerseys or national team paraphernalia featuring the 2012-13 U.S. squad. The only outward signs of the current team are the 17 headshots of the players composed against a wall just above the trophies the team won in 2012.
Ricketts' photo is no larger than any of the others. Not yet.
Past the portraits is a corridor to the museum. It's filled with the uniforms, faces and names essential to the sport's history. One name sticks out among many: Lisa Fernandez. Her name and face appears among the five 2013 Hall of Fame inductees. Being voted into the ASA Hall of Fame is about as easy as being voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. - which is to say it's damned tough. For a player to be voted into the ASA Hall of Fame, he or she must have been named to at least three ASA All-American teams and "excelled at the national championship level." Once nominated, the nominee must receive at least 75 percent of the vote from the selection committee.
No more than five players are elected each year, but the selection committee apparently didn't hesitate to elect Fernandez. There is descriptive paragraph written about each of the inductees, and Fernandez's blurb leaves no doubt about what she means to softball. Hers begins "One of the greatest softball players to ever play the game ..."
Fernandez's statistics from her career at UCLA from 1990-93 are more impressive than Ricketts' numbers, at least from the mound, but not by much. She amassed a 93-7 record as a Bruin with an earned run average of 0.22, while amassing 784 strikeouts. At the plate, she batted .382 with 15 home runs and 128 RBIs.
In just over three seasons, Ricketts has already recorded more than 100 wins and more than 1,330 strikeouts. She's the only woman in Oklahoma history to strikeout more than 1,000 batters, and her career 1.24 ERA is shrinking. As a hitter, she ranks among the top 10 in school history in home runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and walks, and has already eclipsed Fernandez in career home runs and RBIs.
Fernandez, now in her 15th season as an assistant coach on the UCLA staff, is one of two women Team USA coach Ken Eriksen believes is comparable to Ricketts. The other is as close to perfect as any softball player who has ever played the game.
More than a decade before Title IX was enacted and signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, Joan Joyce was widely acknowledged as the best female fastpitch softball player in the country, if not the world. Playing semi-pro ball for women's teams for more than two decades over the course of her career, according to the ASA, Joyce batted .327 with the Stratford, Conn., Raybestos Brakettes and Orange, Calif., Lionettes. As a pitcher, she threw 105 no-hitters and 33 perfect games.
In an Aug. 1961 charity event in Waterbury, Conn., a 20-year-old Joyce struck out one of the best hitters baseball has ever known: Ted Williams. She was inducted into the ASA Hall of Fame 1983, nearly 10 years before Ricketts was born. Joyce also managed to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association and play for the U.S. women's national team in basketball. She helped start the Women's Professional Softball League and her club won three of four championships before the league folded. She now coaches at Florida Atlantic University and the softball team hasn't had a losing season in 18 years.
"Joan comes from a bygone era, but is one of the best players if not the best player to ever play the game," Eriksen says. "She'd be the one to throw the shutout and hit the home run to win the game for you. So you've gotta start thinking of Keilani in those type of terms." That's the standard and a measure of Ricketts' potential impact on the sport."
Eriksen first started following Ricketts' career when whispers reached him about how hard she threw in high school. It became easier to scout her in college. After seeing her performance in the 2012 World Series, Eriksen called her efforts "Ruthian" and picked her to close the championship game of the 2012 World Cup of Softball.
That summer, he tabbed Ricketts to start the International Softball Federations XIII Women's World Fastpitch Championship game. She responded by allowing two runs, one walk, four hits and striking out 10 batters in 9⅔ innings of work. The U.S. lost the game to Japan, 2-1, in 10 innings, but Ricketts used the game's biggest stage to establish herself as Team USA's ace.
"If you were going to put a face on USA softball right now, it's kind of tough not to put Keilani Ricketts' face up there," Eriksen says. And she hasn't peaked yet.
Softball players are not unlike Major League Baseball players in that they often reach their peak in their late 20s to early 30s. This is important for Ricketts as well as USA Softball. The sport is among those under consideration for readmittance in the 2020 Olympic Games and Ricketts turns 29 years old in 2020.
Only nine years after softball was admitted by the IOC for the first time, in July 2005, the sport was voted out of the Olympics following the 2008 Games to make way for other sports, including rugby and golf. Softball, along with its older brother baseball, became the first sports cut from the Olympic Games since water polo was ousted in 1936.
The U.S. dominated the competition in the Olympics and many believe that was why the IOC dropped the sport. Although the U.S. won only a silver medal in 2008, losing to Japan, the U.S. won gold in 1996, 2000, and 2004 , outscoring its opponents 51-1 at the Athens Games. The only run the Americans allowed came in the gold medal game against Australia.
Ricketts' dream of representing her country was squashed before she made it out of high school, but she still holds out hope that, perhaps, she'll receive an opportunity represent her country in the competition that has mattered most to the girls and women who play her sport. "Since all the older girls left, we're starting from scratch and a lot of us are college girls," Ricketts says. "We're trying to build up to be, potentially, the best team in the world."
The overseers of USA Softball have begun anew with talented women from the Twitter generation, and they have chosen Ricketts to help lead them into the future as the next Fernandez, the next Finch, the next Joyce. They have chosen her, and Ricketts, a reserved, soft-spoken woman, now must come to grips with what that means, what being chosen entails.
Attention. Fame. The media.
The Keilani Ricketts in the circle contrasts from the one sitting on the cold bleachers next to the left field fence at Marita Hynes Field. This is not the Keilani Ricketts who takes time to encourage young girls after games and sign autographs with glee. This is not the Keilani Ricketts who strikes out batters and belts long arcing home runs. This is the Keilani Ricketts who is shy, pensive, who does not like to talk about herself or her accomplishments.
Her left shoulder is packed and bandaged with ice in mid-April on a sunny, warm day. It's clear her trainers and coaches are interested in taking care of that arm, that body. In four years, that shoulder has pitched four no-hitters. Three of those no-hitters have come this season, and that shows how far she's come as a pitcher. While she replies to questions in shorts and a T-shirt following an Oklahoma practice before hosting Iowa State, she measures her responses, taking long periods of time to summon what she believes is a good enough answer for a tape recorder or open notebook.
She still has a hard time seeing herself as a cutout in a museum, standing alongside Finch or Osterman. Yet she may well be better than either, and her level of athleticism precisely what the sport needs to move forward into the future.
"My coach, we talk about it every single year," Ricketts says. "She's like, 'You need to let them see your personality.' I just don't know how to do that because I'm just so focused on trying to give the right answer."
These bleachers are the only place in Oklahoma's softball complex where she isn't dominant, where she doesn't blow people away with her preternatural gifts. It's also a place where she's not looking to excel. That place is in-between the lines of the softball field, in the dugout, in the locker room.
Her teammates love her. Her coaches love her, and because she's the best player on the best team this year in college softball, she's being asked to answer questions about how she feels, what she sees, what's next. Granting interviews is a task she performs because she's been asked to, because she is realizing her persona has become as important as her ability to play the game. That doesn't mean she likes it, at least not yet, although she is trying.
She's most comfortable on the fringes. She'd rather listen than talk. She needs to know you, to be around you consistently, to feel she can have fun with you and be her private self with you. No, she's not the woman to give the rah-rah speech. She is the woman to know what is needed, to give of herself what she can and look to repeat her performance the next day. She just doesn't see what's so spectacular about that.
Sometimes the idea of participating in so many interviews is overwhelming for her. Her thoughts and musings are broadcast over airwaves, in print, on the Internet. To be sure, some reporters don't make it easy when they ask questions that show they haven't done their homework or simply tell her what they want her to talk about to provoke a loaded response.
In on-camera interviews, she stands above most reporters. She listens to their questions and attempts to give answers she thinks people want to hear while trying not to tarnish the reputation of a program and university she's come to love. It's a burden, one she never thought she'd have to endure when she became a pitcher - a position that commands attention.
"I don't necessarily like it, but I'm OK with dealing with it," she says. "I think my freshman year I hated it. It's not really my favorite thing. I know that there's girls on the team that they like this part, they like this stuff."
She is not that woman, but that is the woman she will have to become.
In Hawaiian, Keilani means of the sea and sky, a child of the heavens. Keilani Ricketts is the baby of her family, the youngest of Jeff and Carol Ricketts' four children. Her two sisters, Samantha and Stephanie, and her brother, Rick, provided examples of how to live life, how to play the game. Rick showed her just because they say you can't does not mean you must believe them. He was an undersized defensive tackle in high school, but became a ferocious defensive end at Air Force.
Keilani began playing basketball and softball in kindergarten because those are the games her sisters played, the two sports her family spent the most time playing, and she wanted to become as good as her sisters. Because she was tall for her age and left-handed, her parents taught her to pitch as early as 11 years old. Jeff would take the three sisters out to the park and have the two pitchers, Keilani and Stephanie, throw to him and Samantha. If he didn't push the pitchers of the family to become great, he showed them how rewarding it was to chase greatness.
"He was always tough on them," Samantha says. "If they were messing around or kind of complaining, he would make them run in-between pitches. He'd throw a ball back in the dirt if they bounced one at us. Just kind of always being tough on her and Steph with what they were doing. I think my dad realized before they did just what potential they had with their size and with their talent."
No one was certain all three Ricketts daughters would become All-American softball players then, least of all Samantha, the oldest. None of the larger traditional softball powerhouses offered her a scholarship, and Samantha was all set to attend a small West Coast college before Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso called her about a month before the start of Samantha's freshman year. Samantha, still a teenager, had a decision to make: She could stay at home and become a great softball player on an average team, or she could travel to Division I Oklahoma, a perennial powerhouse, and find out how good she really was. She committed without ever visiting the school. "It was a little different, a little scary," Samantha says today, "but I think it was what was meant to be and where I was supposed to be with everything." If she hadn't, Keilani might have never decided to attend Oklahoma.
As Keilani grew physically, so did her love for the game and ability to excel in it. She matured earlier than her peers, and stood nearly 6'0 by eighth grade, the year Samantha first recognized her youngest sister could be the best softball player and the best athlete of them all.
Samantha was coaching Keilani's summer ball team and began to notice the control and velocity her little sister had from the circle. Keilani overpowered batters, but there was something more. Samantha noticed Keilani excelled when the stakes were highest, when the game was bigger, when it mattered most. Soon the softball subculture in Southern California began to see Keilani as Samantha did.
Ricketts enrolled at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., a private Catholic high school with a reputation for winning championships and producing some of the nation's best female athletes: soccer's Brandi Chastain, beach volleyball's Kerri Walsh-Jennings and basketball's Danielle Robinson all attended Mitty.
She made Mitty's varsity basketball team as a freshman and spent her first two years playing on the same basketball team as Robinson, and didn't make the varsity softball team until her sophomore season. Due to her ability, size and the prestige that came with being associated with Mitty's girls' basketball, most of her peers thought of her as a basketball player. Megan Yocke was not one of those people.
Yocke played high school softball with all three Ricketts sisters at one time or another at Mitty and has since returned to the team as an assistant coach. She played second base when she pitched and remembers fielding a lot of ground balls. Few right-handed hitters could turn on her fastball.
The Monarchs' softball field didn't have a fence, and the outfield overlapped the outfield of the school's freshman baseball field. The Monarch girls so routinely hit balls into the Monarch boys' baseball field that opposing outfielders set up in the baseball diamond's infield to field long fly balls. Still, Yocke remembers Keilani blasting shots so far into the baseball field that they were hopeless to pursue. "You'd see the other teams running for it while she's rounding the bases," Yocke says.
Pitching coach Kenny Gardner had seen Ricketts play travel ball and told her he could teach her to become better than she thought she could be. By the end of her junior year, Ricketts began to take playing softball seriously, and Gardner convinced her that she was special. He told her that he could teach her to become nearly unhittable, as good or better than pitcher Monica Abbott, the woman who still owns NCAA records for career victories, shutouts and strikes.
"He was telling me if I worked hard enough I could be as good as her," Ricketts says. "I never really took that to heart. I always heard people say with my strength and my height I could be a good pitcher. Then I wanted to be as good as I was capable of being." After that meeting, she was convinced she had a rare talent not just as a hitter, but also as a pitcher, and she could do more than just play college softball if she was willing to perform the necessary work.
At 16 years old, she began working on the details of her mechanics and ended her senior season 22-0 with a 0.10 ERA, leading Mitty to the 2009 National Fastpitch Coaches Association national championship. By that time, UCLA, Washington, Texas A&M, Florida and Cal all wanted her services, but her sister Samantha was just beginning work as a graduate assistant for the softball program at Oklahoma. Keilani knew if she decided to attend Oklahoma, she'd have family with her in Norman. That made her decision easy.
Keilani moved out of the dorms early to stay with her sister, which meant Samantha had the difficult task of serving as her sister's coach and maternal figure at once. As a graduate assistant, she was on Gasso's staff to learn how to coach the game as well as manage the variety of personalities, idiosyncrasies and exceptional physical abilities that make up elite athletes. "It was definitely tough," Samantha says. "We had our arguments as well, but I never thought of it as, 'This is my job,' but I knew going into it from the time she committed that that's what I was gonna be there for." Although Keilani's relationship with Samantha helped persuade her to attend Oklahoma, her relationship with Shults would prove to become her most significant on the team, and perhaps most importantly, when softball didn't matter at all.
Softball is a popular spectator sport in Norman, and for the Oklahoma-Iowa State game, a sellout crowd of 1,433 turns out to watch. Over the last two months, word has spread about the nation's best softball program, a team with a 40-3 record so far this season, and about their star pitcher.
As the video board at the Marita Hynes Field rolls through its pregame mixtape of Sooner triumphs, Iowa State players gawk at the screen. After the pregame festivities end, Ricketts takes the circle, and her catcher, Jessica Shults, relays the sign from associate head coach Melyssa Lombardi. Ricketts rocks and fires, snapping the mitt time and time again. It's a familiar routine, one that is almost automatic. Shults simplifies the game for Ricketts, the way she has throughout her career.
The two met on their unofficial visit to Oklahoma just as Shults was beginning to become an outstanding ballplayer herself. The catcher earned Los Angeles Daily News First-Team honors in all four years of high school at William S. Hart High in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif., but when she arrived at Oklahoma she soon realized her main role would be to help Gasso smooth the rough edges off her star pitcher.
Ricketts could always throw hard, and that was the primary reason Gasso recruited her, but that wasn't going to be enough for Ricketts to reach the level of excellence her coach wanted for her. To reach that level, Ricketts would have to trust her coach. "She didn't trust very much, but I don't know that she trusted a lot of people because she was a very shy and reserved young girl," Gasso says. But just as Keilani trusted her sister, Samantha, she grew to trust Shults.
While Ricketts doesn't wish for attention, Shults has openly considered the possibility of hosting her own talk show. Yet, like Ricketts, Shults is fiercely loyal. While playing T-Ball, Shults made sure she stepped into the batter's box closest to her dugout lest the opposing team's players think she was trying to score runs for them.
It was Shults who kept Ricketts loose, who listened to music and danced with Ricketts before games; who reminded her that she's been playing this game for more than 10 years; who reminded her playing softball is fun. She helped Gasso make Ricketts into a more complete pitcher instead of a woman who could simply throw the ball hard, and she helped Ricketts handle criticism she initially resisted.
For years, she'd been able to simply throw the ball by other women, and, at first, she didn't see the need to adjust. Why should she change her pitching grips? Why should she change her arm angle, her motion? So what if batters could see what she planned to throw them midway through her windup? Gasso isn't the kind of coach to let her players, even those with great gifts, just get by. She is well known for her ability to develop players, to help them improve, and she refused to let Ricketts coast.
"We have sat together, and we have butted heads and tears have been shed and we've gone through a lot because if I didn't, if we didn't, I would not forgive myself," Gasso says. "It's like raising a kid: If you don't discipline them, if you don't challenge them, if all you do is let them do whatever they want and you hand them everything that they want, you're kind of creating a monster."
Shults was the foil between teacher and student and was there when Ricketts needed her, when it wasn't so glamorous to be the nation's best softball player. But that kind of loyalty isn't given without the knowledge that it might someday be repaid. So it was for Ricketts.
After Shults finished her freshman year batting .364 and crushing 15 home runs, she anticipated performing even better as a sophomore. But in the middle of the season she began to feel sick.
She put the pain away at first, but found near the end of the season she'd lost nearly 20 pounds. A colonoscopy in the last week of the regular season revealed she suffered pan ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause bloody stool, severe diarrhea and abdominal cramping. The disease put Shults in the hospital for much of the 2011 postseason.
Since she couldn't travel with the team, her teammates did everything they could to make her feel as if she was there with them through Skype chats, frequent text messages and phone calls. No one did more than Ricketts.
When Ricketts wasn't at practice or Oklahoma didn't have a game to play, she was with Shults. After Oklahoma won its Super Regional at Arizona, she brought the game balls to Shults and placed them by her bedside.
"Any second that they had off from practice, I feel like Keilani was right there next to me," Shults says. "I couldn't really talk to her or anything, but she was always there just to kind of keep me company. Keilani was there until the nurses told her to leave."
Ricketts learned she could succeed, and even thrive, despite the loss of her catcher, her friend. Her strength and newfound confidence showed during the following season when the pair led the team to a 54-10 record and reached the best-of-three World Series finale to finish as the national runner-up. Ricketts finished the season with a 37-9 record, started all three games of the championship series and struck out 64 batters in the tournament, third most of any pitcher in series history. When she was younger, that may have been enough for Ricketts. Not anymore. There is one accolade she hasn't received, and one she now wants badly even if she won't quite let herself admit it, one more step toward entering the ASA Hall of Fame.
There are reminders of it throughout Oklahoma's softball facility, even in the team room, which is adorned with murals, plaques and renditions of players about it. Ricketts' likeness is painted on the east wall along with the names of every All-American the program has ever produced. On the south wall, hang clear plaques denoting Big 12 and Regional honors the program has won.
The west wall, however, is dedicated to the school's most famous and well-known softball team, the 2000 team, Gasso's best team. That squad won Oklahoma's only national championship in the sport and finished the season with a school record 66 wins and just eight losses. Four Sooners were named to All-American teams in 2000, and the 2000 coaching staff was named NFCA Coaching Staff of the Year. That's what Gasso is trying to get back to, and that's what her teams have chased ever since.
Gasso is not the kind of person to mince words or give false praise. She's been coaching too long for that. She is the kind of person who will tell you she only has five minutes for an interview and sits down with you for 20 answering your questions in earnest, with careful thought and complete confidence. Like when she pondered whether Ricketts is the best softball player of the last 25 years. For her, the question is more than about what the numbers show or even Olympic gold medals. It's about impact. It's about legend. Even now, among the game's purists, Ricketts' name rings out. The bell would ring sweeter with a national title tacked onto her résumé. "I'd give anything to see her raise a national championship trophy above her head," Gasso says.
Of course that's what Oklahoma is after right now. Ricketts has propelled this team to its best start in school history, and this is her last opportunity to win a national title. Then it's off to the real world. Or something like it. She'll lead Team USA into this year's World Cup, likely begin a professional career in the National Pro Fastpitch league and overseas, and continue to prove herself the best among the world's elite.
If everything goes right, then perhaps eight years from now, during the Olympics in some distant country, perhaps then Ricketts will be ready to join Finch and Fernandez, Osterman and Joyce and take her rightful place as the face of the sport. Perhaps by then the still shy superstar, the Babe Ruth of her sport, will gain a measure Ruth's easy charm. Perhaps by then she will have a national championship to her résumé and an Olympic Medal around her neck.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Norman, Ricketts will only pitch two innings because the Sooners will score 24 runs in the first two frames. Still, three of the first four batters she faced struck out, and she walked back to her dugout to the sound of her teammates and fans calling out superlatives, shouting at her what she will not whisper herself: That she is the best there is.
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